It’s the season of consumer electronics announcements. Although it’s tempting to focus on phones that have faster processors than the desktop computer you bought two years ago, these announcements touch your living room as well.
Companies are competing to be your media solution of choice for streaming or gaming. All these companies try to outdo each other – which is a win for consumers, because it means you have options.
Which media device is right for you? That depends upon which features are important to you. Let’s get into that breakdown now.
Resolution seems like a logical place to start, as you’ll be taking your media device and hooking it into your TV. You’re going to want to know what the picture looks like.
Of all the competitors currently on the market, the Amazon Fire TV has the edge in this area. It supports 4K video (3840 x 2160). The 4K video, which you may see referred to as Ultra HD, is a variation of what you might see at the theater on a slightly wider screen.
The importance of this may actually be minimal for a while. The limiting factor with 4K is that it requires really fast Internet to be able to stream. Consumers are starting to have incredible Internet speeds available to them (Rocket Fiber, anyone?) However, it takes a while for these things to be rolled out across the country. For this reason, services like Netflix and YouTube are just starting their 4K push.
The newly released Roku 4 has support for 4K video. If you want to future-proof and 4K is important to you, this is a good option.
The good news for future-proofing is that 4K in the home is relatively new and all of these devices support 1080p high definition.
Support for Services
The second big thing you have to worry about is support for your favorite services. If you have mostly Apple content and iTunes stuff to stream, you’re going to have to get an Apple TV.
Amazon’s software is normally cross-platform compatible. However, they’ve had issues making an app for Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast. That’s led to some serious squabbling. (Who needs reality TV when we have tech news?)
If you’re looking for a streaming player, make sure your services of choice, such as Netflix, are supported.
One of the features Apple has been touting recently is the ability to port existing games over to the Apple TV. The touchpad on the new Apple TV remote should open up increased functionality for games. The new version will also support external gaming controllers through Bluetooth.
Apple is just the latest to bring games to its platform. All the other platforms have had game support for a while now. Amazon offers a version of its Fire TV with a special gaming controller.
The Roku has a motion control remote that has gaming functionality built in. For its part, the Chromecast has certain games that you can control through your phone or tablet while they’re being shown on the television screen.
If you’re a big gamer, take a look at PlayStation 4 or PlayStation TV, Xbox One or Wii U. They’re specifically built for gaming but have a lot of the streaming services. It’s worth noting that these tend to be more expensive than standalone streaming media boxes.
If your surround sound system still relies on optical audio for output, you’re going to want to take a close look at the Roku 4, which is the only one of these media boxes that still sports an optical audio jack.
Keep in mind that each of the other options relies on HDMI exclusively for both video and audio inputs.
Each of the media box options comes with a remote. If you get an older model Roku, it may or may not come with voice functionality, but this is standard on the Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV.
Apple also has a voice remote on its new Apple TV that integrates Siri. Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, is available on the Fire TV and will be coming soon to the Fire TV Stick.
The new Apple TV remote has a nifty feature where you can plug it into a lightning cable, just like your iPhone or iPad, to recharge. Apple claims months of battery life.
Chromecast is the only one to drop the remote completely, opting to let users send things directly from their mobile devices to the television. As a Chromecast user myself, this is pretty intuitive and I haven’t had problems. This could also be an advantage if you’re the type of person who tends to misplace the remote.
So far we’ve mostly talked about media boxes, but if you’re not into games and don’t have a 4K TV, you may not need all that power. They’re also not the most portable.
Let me introduce you to the set-top box’s less expensive, more stylish sister product – the streaming stick.
All of these work pretty much the same way. You plug one side into the HDMI port and the other side into USB power either on your TV or through a wall adapter. From there, hook it into your Wi-Fi, and you’re off and running.
Let’s do a quick comparison.
The options from Amazon and Roku both include remotes. Amazon’s even has a voice remote bundle, although it will cost you $10 more. As mentioned above, Chromecast is controlled through your mobile device itself.
The Chromecast and Fire TV Stick also have games included.
Note that the Roku and the Fire TV Stick lose their ability to deliver 4K in the transition to the smaller stick form.
However, whatever these streaming sticks lose in capability, they gain in affordability.
You want to be able to connect to all your streaming services, but you don’t want to have to pay an arm and a leg. After all, you still have to subscribe to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video or Hulu. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the cost variable, starting with the media boxes.
The newly announced Apple TV will sell for $149. Apple is keeping the old model on sale (for now) at $69.
The Roku starts at $50, but if you want the new version with all the bells and whistles and 4K, that’s $130. The streaming stick version is $50.
The top-of-the-line Amazon Fire TV with gaming controller is $140. It’s $100 for the Fire TV with the voice remote. The Fire TV Stick starts at $40, although the optional voice remote will cost you $10 more.
Finally, the Chromecast checks in at $35. Make sure not to confuse this with the separate Chromecast Audio product that provides a wireless connection to speakers.
This is a lot of information, but hopefully it makes your purchase decision easier. What streaming devices have you used in the past? What did you like or dislike? Share your thoughts with other readers in the comments.
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